2016 is on its way out, and we’re hurtling into 2017 – are you where you thought you’d be last year? This is a time of year that gets a lot of people thinking about changing something, “New Year, new you”, a time for looking back on where you’ve been, and forward to where you want to be.

For some folk, in Shetland, this is stalled a little by Up-Helly-Aa season – do you wait until after the fire festival? Or Lerwick UHA? Or maybe you’re from North, or the Isles, or a SMUHA diehard...? Is it easier just to put it off till April...? Whether you’re planning on making a change soon, or it’s just niggling in the back of your head to be started sometime in the future, there are a few things that can help you get ahead when it comes to making a change that will last.

What do you want to change?

You might have a specific behaviour in mind, e.g. stopping smoking, getting better sleep, cutting down caffeine, starting an evening class, or you might have a more general idea of where you want to be – fitter, healthier, happier, more financially secure. Either is fine – a good start, but to be successful will take a bit more planning.

When you’re deciding what to change consider what is important to you-not what someone else thinks you should change, what you’ve been told to do, what you think you maybe could change, or what will help you fit in with anyone else – even with strong, convincing arguments and consequences, if the change doesn’t fit with what your values it will be really hard to do. Thinking about what is important in your life, and how the change relates to this can help.  Quite often you end up with same change, but you are doing it for your specific reasons – e.g. the doctor might want you to lose weight to lower your blood pressure, and they’ve told you that will ruin your risk of a stroke. You know all of that, but what actually helps you change is the fact that you’ve been planning for your retirement, you have plans with your family, you want to see your children or grandchildren grow up, your health is important to you but it’s not stroke risk you’re thinking of, it’s being alive to meet your grandchild, or go on that retirement holiday, or making it to wherever you see yourself in 5/10/15 years time.

So step 1, done! You’ve thought about what is important to you, whether your life now fits in with that and what can you change to be closer to how you want to be (remember consistent small changes can make a big difference)

Are you ready to do it?

Once you’ve decided what you want to change, or what will take you closer to where you want to be, the next question is whether you’re ready – you don’t want to set yourself up for failure. Quite often the change you’re planning will have been on your mind for a while – think about what is making you decide to do it now. There are always pros and cons of changing things – doing things differently takes effort, your old behaviour will still be the easier, automatic choice for a while, so you need to be ready to commit, ready to try.

When we talk to people about making changes we normally see them as being somewhere on this “cycle of change” – it’s not a straight forward case of ready/not ready. See where you think you are on the cycle:

If you’re not quite at the action/doing stage there are few things that can help you get there:

 Writing down the pros and cons of changing can help (actually writing it down, not just thinking about it does make a difference – grab a pen and paper and be as honest as you can!) -

Good things that will happen if I change:

Bad things that could happen if I change/ things I will miss out on if I change:

Good things about staying the same/ what do I like about how things are now?

Bad things about staying the same/ what don’t I like about how things are now:

You’ve already decided this is important, but thinking about just how important it is can help you get ready to go.


Ask yourself, how important is it to me to make this change? Why is it 6/10, not 4/10? What would make it more important, say, 8/10? (add in your own values!).

Then do the same for how confident you are that you can do it now.

So, step 2 – you're ready? We’re getting somewhere!

Now you need a plan - how exactly are you going to achieve this? If you were quite specific about what you were changing this stage might be a little easier, e.g. if you were going to drink more water you might decide how much you’ll drink, when you’ll drink it, what cup/glass/water bottle you’ll use, how you’ll remind yourself, are you a drink it all before a meal type, or will you swittle on a bottle at your desk, if you’d planned to get more sleep how are you going to do that, what’s stopping you at the moment – do you need to go to bed earlier, do you need to plan time to wind down, ban electronics from the bedroom, kick that evening caffeine/sugar habit, stick to a routine, get blackout blinds or earplugs or a comfy pillow if your environment doesn’t help you sleep, does getting some fresh air in the day help you sleep? If you were a bit more general, e.g. “I want to be healthier” decide what that means to you – getting your 5-a-day, drinking less alcohol, getting some exercise, taking your medication, looking after your mental health by keeping up a hobby, or having a regular catch up with friends, relaxing, meditating, leaving work on time, taking a proper lunchbreak, stopping smoking, flossing everyday – “being healthy” can mean lots of different things, pin yourself down to what it means to you, then make a plan.

There are a few things you might want to firm up:

  • What exactly are you going to do – how much, how often, where, when, who with, how long for.  Be as specific as you can.
  • How will you know you are doing it? What can you measure yourself up against, is this an every day thing, are you aiming for a specific time, are you going to write your progress down, do you have an app on your phone, are you going for an exact amount. Giving yourself boundaries and tracking how you’re getting on makes you more likely to be successful.
  • What makes this realistic and achievable? Do you need someone to help you (with something practical, or just for moral support), have you made sure it can fit around your day-to-day life, do you have everything you need? If you can only fit in a walk after dark have you got a torch? If you’re planning a change to your diet have you sussed out some recipes? If you’re stopping smoking have you got some kind of support? (you’re 4 times more likely to stop with behaviour support and pharmacotherapy, i.e. NRT or medication) If you’re cutting down alcohol have you sussed out alcohol free options at your local, planned another way to catch up with friends, hocked out a smaller wine glass, or maybe doing a Dry January challenge is more your style? Making your plan achievable, so it is within your reach, is important – this doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it does make it more likely you’ll be able to make it happen.
  • Do you have an end point? When will you reflect on your progress and see if you need to tweak what you’re doing?

Step 3 – Setting a goal –now you have a plan that is specific, you know how you’ll measure or track your progress, your plan is realistic and you know when you’re going to check in and see if you need to tweak it. You’re very nearly there.

What’s going to get in the way? We know it won’t be easy, so don’t go in blind. What is likely to make it difficult? What has derailed your efforts in the past? Once you’ve identified potential pitfalls try and come up with a plan for when/if they happen – a simple “if this happens, I will do that” might be enough to put you on the front foot, you might need a plan B, or  you might need to think about what these barriers or triggers are and how you can remove them.  If you think you failed before because of your weak willpower, you just couldn’t resist those biscuits with your cup of tea, that glass of wine after a long day, you couldn’t peel yourself off the couch to go for a walk, maybe the environment was working against you:

Are the biscuits in the cupboard near the teabags, are they the first thing you see when you make a cuppa? Is the wine in the fridge, just in case? Is that all you see when you go in to make dinner, are the wine glasses at the front of the cupboard, or in plain view on the shelf? Have you come up with another way to relax/be kind to yourself after a long day? What are the chances you’ll get up off the couch once you’re settled in – do you need to go for a walk straight after work, do you have your trainers in the car, or at the front door? Have you planned where you will go, and how long it will take? Are you stopping smoking but still carrying cigarettes just in case, do you still have ashtrays in the cupboard, just in case?

You can make the environment work for you too – make a new routine or build in some new triggers. If your trainers normally live in a cupboard, get them out so you see them every day.  If you automatically reach for a biscuit when you’re hungry move them to a less visible place and get some fruit on the counter. If you won’t reach for a carrot unless it’s chopped then get some chopped and in the fridge. If you always have a cigarette with your coffee maybe switch to herbal tea, if the smokey smell in the car has you thinking about lighting up on your way to work maybe it’s time to deep clean the car. If you know the slightest blip sends you full scale off your plan then examine your thinking – are you being realistic and reasonable, does one bad day really mean failure? Can you learn something from what went wrong this time so it doesn’t happen again?

We all have different things that set us off – work out what your triggers and barriers might be and plan for them, if you do slip up see if you can learn something for next time.

Step 4 – busting barriers – you’re ready for any eventuality, and you’ve planned to get back on track if it doesn’t go quite perfectly.

Finally - do you need any practical help/advice? This might mean speaking to a knowledgable friend, health professional, Citizens Advice Bureau, a money advice service, a personal trainer, investing in a cookbook that meets your needs (does it need to be quick? Re-heatable? Lunch ideas?), a weight loss plan or guide (NHS choices, British Heart Foundation resources are good options, but there are lots out there), a couch to 5k plan, online support groups...the list could go on – find something that works for you.

If you want help putting your plan for a health related change into action you could make an appointment with your local Health Improvement person to discuss it.

Good luck!